Several related events recently took place that highlight the
seriousness of the trade in torture weapons such as electroshock
weapons, and the role that private companies in some countries, notably
the United States and the United Kingdom, have in it.
These, and other countries' role was stressed in a document just
released by Amnesty International called "Stopping the Torture Trade,"
which calls for a stop in
the production and trade of torture weapons.
The release of this report comes at the same time as the US State
Department report on human rights around the world, the accusation
against General Hernan Gabrielli, the second-in-comand of the Chilean
Air Force for his participation in torture of political prisoners during
the Pinochet regime, a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of
Human rights, establishing that amnesty cannot stand in the way of
trials for human rights abuses, and an Argentine judge's decision to
overturn amnesty laws dictated by the military. These laws protected
from prosecution hundreds of soldiers and military officers who were
accused of torture, murder and kidnapping during Argentina's last
military rule, from 1976 to 1983, thus potentially opening the way for a
wave of trials. If those officers who participated in torture are
finally found guilty, this will mark a new human rights era in Argentina
with repercussions around the world.
According to Amnesty International, US companies, as well as companies
the United Kingdom, France, and Russia sell weapons and other equipment
for torture. It states that some American companies are involved in the
manufacture, marketing and export of such items. Among them are
electroshock weapons, leg irons and serrated thumb cuffs designed to
tear flesh if a detainee intends to escape. Amnesty International
believes that some of these items -such as flesh tearing thumb cuffs and
electric shock weapons-are "inherently cruel" and their trade should be
The US is the largest supplier of electro-shock devices. According to AI
investigations, 86 US companies have manufactured, marketed or sold
electro shock devices during the 1990s. William F. Schulz, head of the
US chapter of the London-based human rights group, stated, "These
weapons are used against many people who should be heroes to Americans."
In many countries including Argentina -my own-electro-shock has been
routinely used against political prisoners. Those devices have also been
used against children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the mentally
The AI report also indicates that the US, as well the United Kingdom,
China, France, and Russia are among the main providers worldwide of
training to military, police and security forces of foreign states.
Because those forces are the main users of torture technique and
equipment, stopping torture means stopping also the trade and the
training that helps create those "professional torturers."
Even though it is illegal to own some of the equipment in the US, the US
Department of Commerce has granted export licenses for this kind of
under the category of "control crime equipment" for sales that amount to
$97 million since 1997. Data from that Department also show that Saudi
Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Egypt are among the major recipients
of US equipment. In a statement Schultz remarked, "It is unconscionable
that while the US State Department promotes human rights, the US
Department of Commerce has approved export licenses to countries that
our own government documents as committing torture."
Perhaps all countries should follow on the steps of President Vicente
Fox, who recently assumed power in Mexico, and who has given human
rights a special prominence. In a speech at Mexico's National Commission
on Human Rights he declared, "We are going to eradicate torture
forever." President Fox has already open the dialogue with
Sub-Comandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas rebels in his
Mariclaire Acosta, Fox's top human rights official, stated that the
problem of torture in Mexico is of considerable magnitude, and it is
necessary to build great public will to eliminate it. As the Amnesty
Report indicates, "Torture doesn't happen in a vacuum. If the
governments of the world had the political will to stop torture they
could do so." Coming on the heels of the State Department report on
human rights abuses around the world, the Amnesty International report
on the torture trade should be a sobering reminder of every country's
responsibility in its elimination.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant, and a
co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for an
article on human rights entitled "Missing or Dead in Argentina: The
Desperate Search for Thousands of Disappeared Victims," published as a
cover story in The New York Times Magazine.
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